Yet another article today that I think raises an interesting possibility about social media. While this article has nothing to do with social media itself I think it raises a point that we should look at the rise of social media in conjunction with other trends in society, in fact, maybe so much so that we can question which is cause and which is effect. This news article is really a book review for Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The first point is:
“A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious,” says Cain.
She explains that before the twentieth century, we lived in what historians called a “culture of character,” when you were expected to conduct yourself morally with quiet integrity. But when people starting flocking to the cities and working for big businesses the question became, how do I stand out in a crowd? We morphed into a “culture of personality,” which she says sparked a fascination with glittering movie stars, bubbly employees and outgoing leadership.
Accepting this hypothesis how might this tie to social media? Given “how do I stand out in a crowd” maybe that is the underlying cause.
Social media isn’t defining us, we’re defining it to meet our need to stand out, to blow our own horn, as Wally says to create our “personal brand”. If social media hadn’t come into existence how else could we “stand out”, certainly across a broader stage than merely our immediate acquaintances and colleagues.
When I left the Bay Area 15 years ago it was very difficult to acquire a telecommuting (knowledge worker) job unless you were already personally known to the organization that might hire you. I did exactly that, retained the job I already had and did it (mostly) over the Net remotely. But getting hired without that personal connection was nearly impossible. Until, that is, the full spectrum of social media. Now you can turn yourself into a product and people will find you. Blogging is critical, but not the rambling thing like this and most other personal blogs, but a blog focused laser-sharp on the single area of competence where you intend to sell yourself. And then all your other participation in social media, as the politicians say, stays “on message”, all your pronouncements in all channels scream out a single message, “I’m at expert at xxx, hire me”. And it works. I see people do this all the time, across national borders, hired by someone they’ve never even met.
Well that is certainly “standing out” and how else could we possibly do it except through social media. Academics had some shot at this in the past: journal articles (the old publish-or-perish), presentations at society meetings, published books, maybe an appearance before Congress, etc. Plus certainly working the social network the old-fashioned way: phonecalls, xmas cards, keeping track and commenting on colleague’s lives (like their kids graduating or new babies). All that drove reputations and then ultimately funding.
But this was limited. Business career types had much less opportunity to do that visible public networking, but now anyone can via social media. Not only can, but according to Wally, MUST. All jobs today are temp jobs, so everyone who has a temp job has to simultaneously be working on how they’ll get their next temp job. So social media came along at just the right time.
And maybe the kids are just getting practice doing the same thing they’ll have to do later in life. Meanwhile, of course, they can do what kids always do, use social media to figure out new ways to get laid (the high prevalence of sexting in social media seems to suggest the real motives of kids using it, response to all those raging hormones). So social media has very immediate gratification to the kids as they meanwhile learn how to earn money as adults, using the same tools.
So, any investigation into social media needs to look at context. Again is society shaping us so we need social media and the technology just happened along at the right time and place. This possibly suggests some research alternatives: if it exists find a society where social media has minimal practical benefit and compare the patterns of usage there with the more dominant case of societies where social media has huge, maybe even mandatory, personal benefit. Whether such a study can be achieved or not, maybe within a first-world country those people who are likely to be in the global economy vs those who are not, is there any difference in their patterns of usage.
However the collateral social, economic and political issues affect people there is probably spillover into people’s use of social media, so I think this must be accounted for.